When We Were Kings

Bill Murray is working the room: enter at your own risk. It's a drizzly morning in New Jersey, and director Wes Anderson is shooting "The Royal Tenenbaums," a comedy due in December about one deeply eccentric family's attempt to survive divorce, heartache, the '70s and each other. A vast old WPA building has been transformed into a hospital, and between takes Murray rambles around the set. He pretends to scold Gwyneth Paltrow ("Hey, are you in character?"), then pretends to comfort Ben Stiller ("You're our rock. You gotta keep it together"). He pretends to be furious with the soft-spoken director ("Bill?" "What?! You're riding us too hard, Wes!"), then complains to producer Barry Mendel that Anderson's turned into a gonzo taskmaster like the man who directed "Pearl Harbor" ("Hey, Barry, who died and made him Michael Bay?"). In a quiet moment Murray reflects on his chances of winning an Oscar someday. "My only hope's a Hersholt award," he says. "It's a humanitarian thing. I gotta rescue a kid who's about to be run over by a train." Eventually Anderson calls everybody together to shoot a scene at the bedside of a Tenenbaum who just attempted suicide because of a broken heart. Murray groans. "Oh, God, now I've got to know a line."

In truth, the large, unlikely cast of "The Royal Tenenbaums"--which also includes Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover and Luke and Owen Wilson--are making the movie as a labor of love and working for the movie-star equivalent of minimum wage. ("Tenenbaums" will cost less than $25 million. On a slick Hollywood picture, that would barely buy you Paltrow and Stiller.) Anderson, 32, has previously directed two comedies from left field, the tiny caper film "Bottle Rocket" and the utterly endearing prep-school story "Rushmore." The latter, which found Murray battling a 15-year-old for the heart of a teacher, popped up on many top-10 lists in 1998 and won Murray an unexpected heap of critics' awards. It also established Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson as original voices: quirky, deadpan, pure of heart. As a director, Anderson is a 24/7 obsessive. As a person, he is adorably geeky and self-effacing. When he hears, thirdhand, that Paltrow told ex-beau and sometime costar Ben Affleck that "The Royal Tenenbaums" is the most fun she's ever had making a movie, the director nods thoughtfully, then says, "But maybe she was just trying to make him feel bad."

The Tenenbaum children grew up in a storybook New York, and once upon a time they were all prodigies. Margot (Paltrow) was a forlorn playwright by the ninth grade, Chas (Stiller) a dead-serious scientist by the sixth, Richie (Luke Wilson) a tennis champ dressed like Bjorn Borg by the third. Since their parents divorced, however, everything's gone to hell--particularly their relationship with their hilariously gruff father, Royal (Hackman). Early in the script, a penniless Royal gets tossed out of the hotel he's been living in. He hasn't spoken to his ex-wife, Etheline (Huston), in seven years, but he convinces her he's dying of cancer and begs to move back home. Soon Chas has returned as well, and even Margot--who has a fur coat, a secret double life and one wooden finger--abandons her husband (Murray) and moves back to the family town house. Everything that could possibly hit the fan does.

After "The Royal Tenenbaums" wraps, director Anderson sits in a cramped editing suite in Manhattan, fretting over exactly which footage to show a reporter. He's so conflicted it's comical. How about the climactic scene where a certain character shaves off some facial hair? "You can't look at that by itself! That's a heavy deal! You'd need to see the whole lead-up!" How about the scene where Royal and his ex-wife, so long estranged, manage to bond a little during a walk in Central Park? Anderson had said, over lunch, that the scene was great. "Oh, I said that was great? I don't want to show you something I said was great."

After a little badgering--20 minutes' worth, tops--the director caves in and plays scenes scattered throughout the movie. Anderson's eye for detail has become even more acute since he made "Rushmore." It's most striking in "Tenenbaums' " wonderful, highly stylized opening sequence, where the kids are poignantly freakish little geniuses, their bedrooms so packed with '70s relics that the movie looks like a pop-up picture book. (At one point Anderson stares at the monitor and says, with real fondness, "Electric tie rack.") But it's not all the whimsical touches that make "The Royal Tenenbaums" seem so promising. It's a theme running through the movie, a theme that's both touching and unsettling: only your family can help you get over your family.